Raheem Mostert has averaged 5.0 and 5.6 yards per carry during the past two seasons. He’s been one of the most explosive weapons in the NFL, but an afterthought when talking about the 49ers running back situation.
Why? Well, Kyle Shanahan, who he and his dad have been famous for making undrafted free agent running backs into competent players, traded up in the NFL Draft to select a running back. If that doesn’t tell you the 49ers are high on Trey Sermon, nothing will.
Sermon was drafted to replace Mostert, who was banged up in 2020 and was on the injury report in ‘19. What’s the last image we have about Sermon? He left the National Championship with an injury.
Age: 22 (birthday was January 30)
Weight: 213 pounds
Sermon hasn’t signed his contract, but he’ll make $660,000 in 2021.
What to expect in 2021
In trying to imagine what specific roles certain players would have, I went back through some of the 49ers games last season. One thing is obvious: they need more production from their running backs in the passing game.
That goes from blocking to catching. Pass protection has been spotty at best while making an impact in the passing game has been non-existent. Those ‘Texas’ routes — think Jeff Wilson Jr.’s game-winning catch against the Cardinals in ‘19 — is the bare minimum for a running back. You don’t get credit for catching swing routes out of the backfield.
That’s where Sermon, and Elijah Mitchell, give the 49ers a boost on offense. Double catches were an issue for Mostert, while drops made Wilson Jr. unplayable. Wilson Jr. dropped 22% of passes thrown his way. He was not targeted beyond ten yards.
Sermon’s transition as a runner should be seamless. His vision and patience are a perfect fit in Shanahan’s outside zone system, as is Sermon’s initial burst, but it’s his hands that will be the difference.
You have to go back to Oklahoma to see Sermon catching the ball up the seam and down the field, but, for a running back, he made it look easy tracking the ball over his shoulder and adjusting to passes.
This is the dynamic that has been missing in the Niners’ offense. Getting your running back 1-on-1 in the passing game against a linebacker is thievery, and I’m surprised more offenses don’t take the easy yards.
I’m not saying Sermon is the next Christian McCaffrey, but a sure-handed running back will make Jimmy Garoppolo and Trey Lance’s job much easier. It’ll also ensure the 49ers are ahead of the chains when they throw the ball on early downs.
Odds on leading the team in rushing
Ideally, the answer here is Mostert. Even a play-caller the caliber of Shanahan doesn’t want to have 11-play drives. Mostert is the fastest player in the NFL with the ball in his hands. Give him the ball and do it often. That’s pretty straightforward.
Now, Mostert must stay healthy. You can’t lead the team in rushing if you’re not on the field — as we saw last season. Do I think Sermon leads the team in rushing? I do not. My prediction is that Mostert puts it together this season, leaving the team in a difficult position next offseason.
Sermon performs well enough in multiple facets as a rookie but doesn’t lead the team in rushing.